While the world’s attention is focussed on the leadership contest in the United States, the leadership change that will unfold in China just days after the US presidential elections has received comparatively less attention. The biggest political event in a decade for the world’s second superpower is scheduled to take place at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing at the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China which will begin on 8 November 2012.
This is a remarkable coincidence in timing as the birth of new stars in the political universe, or indeed an imaginable rebirth in the case of the United States, is being decided. What is equally incredible is that the two superpowers utilize extremely variant electoral processes to usher in a new era of political leadership.
CHINA CHANGES GUARDS
Due to term and age limits restrictions, seven of the nine members of the most important Politburo Standing Committee will be retiring. This includes current Paramount Leader Hu Jintao, who will step down as the powerful party’s General Secretary. The Congress will elect the 18th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and will likely elect currently touted successors into power. Because both the Communist Party of China and the People’s Liberation Army promote according to seniority, it is possible to discern distinct generations of Chinese leadership. These groups of leadership have each promoted an extension of the ideology of the former, which in some cases has influenced the direction of national development.
Currently in the “fourth generation” of Chinese leadership, the “fifth generation” will come to power at the 18th Party Congress in 2012. In the fifth generation, one sees fewer engineers and more management and finance majors, including successful entrepreneurs. Most of the fifth generation of civilian leadership, born in the postwar years 1945 to 1955, were educated at top Chinese universities.
THE RACE TO THE WHITEHOUSE
At the other end of the globe, the race to the Whitehouse is reaching the finish line. As it currently stands, the contest is evenly squared. The one thing that Mitt Romney has in his favour is that he is not Barack Obama, and unlike his rival does not have to defend four years in office while making a case for the next.
Obama on the other hand, has spoken with both aggression and conviction at all of the three Presidential debates and does not seem to offer anything new for a potential new term in office except for wanting to continue to build back the economy and create more jobs for the American people, something for which he has been harshly criticized as failing to do in his first term in office.
RASMUSSEN AND GALLUP HAVE SPOKEN
Rasmussen released the results of its latest three-day poll of the race. It was taken during the three days following the final U.S. Presidential debate. According to the poll, Romney leads Obama by 3 points, 50-47. This result reflects essentially no change from the poll Rasmussen reported on the day of the debate. Romney led that one by 49-47. Thus, the Rasmussen results suggest that the debate did not alter the race.
The same picture emerges from Gallup’s polling. Gallup uses seven-day rolling averages, so its results still encompasses pre-debate data. Gallup result has Romney up by 5 points, 51-46. Its last poll that did not include post-debate results had Romney ahead by that same count. The final result will eventually be determined by the decision of swing states.
THE GLOBAL IMPACT
The global impact of leadership transitions in both the first and second world superpowers is undoubted. While the parties involved in the U.S. leadership, and the individuals concerned in the incoming fifth generation of Communism are variables, they are only tangentially relevant to the respective direction that each country takes in its foreign policy course. To put it simply, there exists imminent global impact notwithstanding the party that comes to power in the U.S. and the individuals that comprise the fifth generation of leadership in China’s Communist party.
In the face of a persistently guarded political system such as China’s, a question that cannot be answered with certainty is what China’s leadership transition will mean for the world. China’s rulers, while often apprehensive of one another’s motives, do work from consensus. Right now, that consensus is clear in an area that matters most to the leadership: continuing economic growth. Another issue that’s clear: China’s leaders remain convinced the party is the only organization that can run China.
U.S. – CHINA RELATIONS
China’s once-a-decade political transition does not just affect its own leaders and citizens. It also has repercussions throughout the world, especially in the United States. From a U.S. perspective, the U.S. will need to prepare to deal with a China that is increasingly divided and uncertain about its future. Going forward, different Chinese leaders may send very different signals about where their country is headed. That will require U.S. policymakers to spend more time examining and understanding what exactly is happening in Beijing and what the Chinese leadership is facing at home.
Moreover, as the United States begins to place more focus on Asia, it is crucial for both countries to not let growing insecurities about each other’s role and power dominate the decision-making process and lead to actions based on fear and distrust. Both nations must instead come to terms with the importance of a productive relationship and not lose sight of the big picture: Both countries need each other, and working cooperatively can lead to desired results on all sides.
A COMPLEX FOREIGN POLICY PARTNER
Until recently, the Chinese Communist Party spoke with one voice; hence China has been fairly easy to deal with. Now, however, the party is becoming more fragmented both in Beijing and around the country over how to deal with China’s growing challenges. All of these multiplying voices coming out of the party are making China a more complex foreign policy partner.
DRAMA IN EAST-ASIAN SEAS
The greatest test the new Chinese leadership will face in the near term will be how to address China’s disputes with neighbouring states over interests in the South China Sea. Theoretically China retains the right to resolve these disputes using any and all means at its disposal, but ideally it would prefer to pursue a diplomatic solution.
China is unlikely to depart from its current policy of reconciliation through bilateral and multilateral interaction, seeking to resolve disputes through international legal institutions via consideration of relevant historical evidence, in the South China Sea and elsewhere. It sees this policy as an opportunity to demonstrate its leadership abilities in settling disputes to the broader international community.
THE CURIOUS CASE OF AFRICA
The African position in relation to the U.S. and China is sharply divided, in terms of which superpower the region sees as priority. The Africa Report of September 2012 reflects the existing dichotomy. When posed the question, ‘Is China’s leadership transition more important to Africa than the U.S. election?’ experts had starkly opposing viewpoints.
Barry Sautman, Associate professor of political science, Hong Kong University opines as follows: ‘Yes, African diplomats should focus more of their resources on the Chinese. American political elites are agreed on what to do with, and in, Africa. For the US, there are two major concerns: terrorism and the strategic rivalry with China in Africa, whether it exists or not. When US secretary of state Hillary Clinton goes to Africa, she always highlights the Chinese presence and how to counteract that. Of course [the US has] other concerns about access to resources and migration too.
‘But when China talks about Africa, it’s a whole other ball game. They are by no means limited to security and the Western presence. That is hardly even on the radar. By and large the Chinese government wants close political ties, a system of mutual support in international organizations and to be able to increase the Chinese economic presence, still small but growing fast. The Chinese rate of extraction of resources is actually much smaller than that of the major Western countries. They are principally concerned with growing markets rather than controlling resources, which they can buy on the international markets. The question for Africans is, if you look at these categories of concerns, which are more relevant? Are you more concerned about Al Qaeda? Or are you more concerned with economic development?’
On the other hand, the likes of Stephen Chan, Professor of international relations, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London believe the reverse is true: ‘No, I think the American election is more important. There is a real prospect that American foreign policy could change or at least be nuanced in some unfortunate ways. Whereas whatever the change in China, policy towards Africa at least is not likely to be changed. There are many different approaches to Africa in China, and there is definitely the sense amongst some conservative people that perhaps China might have tried to do too much too quickly.
‘However, there is no objection in terms of the long-standing broad principle of the African engagement. But if there is a President Mitt Romney, he is likely to have a very greenhorn foreign affairs team. I have met some of that team, and they know nothing about Africa. I don’t think the Romney administration has a clue on earth how to handle Egypt, how to handle an Islamic party, how to handle the configuration of forces in Egypt, which involve not just a volatile and modernizing Muslim Brotherhood but also new generations of military leadership. I don’t think a Romney administration would have a clue about the deep and changing layers in the Egyptian situation.’
For the fifth generation of Chinese leaders, life will be more than a mere focus on GDP growth. The socio-political issues will be the critical area: Creating an effective social welfare system covering the city and the countryside, and addressing the huge inequalities that exist in China today, must become priority.
Other outstanding issues to be addressed include tax reform – China is now a country where people self-tax through savings, and where the government gets most of its revenues from state-owned enterprises. A redistributive tax system will be one big issue policymakers will need to look at – along with overhauling the largely ineffective pension system, particularly given a rapidly aging population.
Public participation in decision making – through strengthening the role of Congresses at local and national levels – will be important. Finally, addressing the long-term problem of giving civil society groups proper legal status, in an era when they will be supplying many of the services government will need. It will be near impossible to see China reaching its stated goal of becoming a middle income country by 2020 without these reforms.
HARMONY HANGS IN THE BALANCE
For all the flak that China has received, it must be noted that there has been frank acceptance of the existence of problems that must be addressed. China concedes growing inequalities and disparities, and accordingly strives to achieve what it calls “Five Balances” in its economy and lifestyles.
Such an endeavour seeks to establish an affluent but “harmonious society” that would remove the imbalances, first, between urban development and rural decay; second, between conditions in the economically prosperous coastal areas including Shanghai and Guangzhou, as against the poverty-stricken interior in the western areas; third, between rapid economic progress and ensuring human development; fourth, between exploitation of resources and preserving environmental harmony; and finally, striking a balance between satisfying the needs of the Chinese people and meeting international demands.
China’s poverty alleviation strategy and rise to becoming the second richest country in the world has been commendable. It is now time for the next generation of leaders in China to cooperate actively with its allies in the West, Africa and Asia to achieve the “five balances” for a “harmonious society” it has set for itself.